History of the North Star House
Mary Hallock Foote, who lived in the house, was an illustrator and writer of the West
Mary Hallock Foote was a well-known, successful illustrator and author in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The path that led her to Grass Valley and the North Star Mine was an unusual one.
She grew up in a Quaker family on the family farm up the Hudson River from New York City. Her artistic talent was recognized and she studied art at the Cooper Union Institute in New York City. She was taught by a master engraver to produce artwork on woodblocks in a manner that they could be engraved to produce high quality pictures. (Illustrations in books and magazines were predominately engravings at that time.) Her first illustrations were published in 1867, while she was still a student.
After school, Mary was living part of the time in New York City and enjoyed a world of artists and culture. She developed contacts who helped propel her career. She became a sought-after illustrator for authors such as Hawthorne, Alcott, Whittier, Longfellow, and many others.
Then her world took a major turn. She fell in love with Arthur De Wint Foote, a civil/mining engineer, whose dreams and goals lay in the West.
Mary married Arthur in 1876, and Arthur returned to California to his new position at the New Almaden Mine south of San Jose. Mary followed a few weeks later. As she traveled across the country by train, her adventurous spirit and curious mind were taking in all of the different landscapes she passed through. That was the beginning of a new life, moving between mining towns and other parts of the West, encountering places, people and experiences that she would never have seen if she had stayed on the East Coast.
In the early years of their marriage, Arthur and Mary rarely stayed in one place for more than a year or two. Life as a mining engineer was often unpredictable, and Arthur’s income opportunities came and went. Meanwhile, Mary’s career was going well. She adapted to each new move and bore three children amidst their travels. When Arthur was between jobs, Mary was able to support the family.
Wherever she went, Mary Hallock Foote embraced her new surroundings. She observed everything around her and enjoyed learning new things. She carried sketchbooks with her and drew the world of the West as she saw it. Mary sent some of her work to her New York editor and it got published in magazines. She intrigued many Easterners with images of life in places that most of them would never actually visit.
Mary’s editor suggested that she write stories to go with the illustrations. With trepidation (and her editor’s promise to help), she tried writing. Her writing was well received. She ultimately published 12 novels, set in the West, and many short stories for Eastern magazines.
In 1895, life for the Foote family changed once again. Arthur was hired by James Hague, owner of the North Star Mine in Grass Valley. The mine was expanding and needed a new power plant. Arthur produced an innovative, successful design, after which he was hired as mine superintendent. Mary and the children joined him in Grass Valley.
For the first time in their married life, the Footes had financial stability and a permanent home. Mary was ecstatic. They moved into a cottage on the property. As the mine continued to prosper, James Hague decided he wanted a large house, suitable for entertaining visiting dignitaries and potential investors. It would also be a gathering place for mine owners and engineers … a place to exchange ideas.
Architect Julia Morgan was hired to design and build the North Star House. This was one of her earliest commissions, but her exceptional talent was already apparent. The house became the family home for the Footes. As a Quaker, Mary loved the natural simplicity of the arts-and-crafts style home. One of the first floor rooms became Mary’s office, where she continued her work.
The Foote’s son followed in Arthur’s footsteps, becoming a civil engineer and apprenticing at a mine in Korea. He then returned to Grass Valley and became assistant superintendent working for his father. In 1913, when Arthur D. Foote retired, his son became superintendent. Mary and Arthur remained at the North Star House.
Mary suffered a major tragedy in Grass Valley when her youngest child died at age 17 from complications of appendicitis. It was several years before she was able to resume writing. But there was also joy when three granddaughters were born and raised at the North Star House. They brought the laughter and energy of children to the home. Mary enjoyed taking walks about the property with them and sharing her love of art and literature.
After moving from place to place with no sense of permanence, Mary and Arthur spent almost 40 years in Grass Valley. It was home!
Mary’s last completed work was her autobiography: “A Victorian Gentlewoman in the Far West.” It was written in the North Star House. She wrote it for her family, but it was published posthumously by her descendants in 1972.
After 25-plus years of vacancy leading to serious damage by squatters and weather, the once beautiful house was in very bad condition and near collapse. Local citizens who wanted to get ownership of the house and restore it were finally successful. The North Star Historic Conservancy, a 501(c)3 nonprofit, was formed. The massive cleanup and restoration project began. Fortunately, we have Julia Morgan’s blueprints plus photographs taken by Arthur Foote and his son (both avid photographers with a darkroom in the house). Those resources are giving us necessary information to restore the house to its original design and elegance. The North Star House is a National and California Registered Historic Place.
The house closed to the public right now due to the pandemic. Learn more at http://www.TheNorthStarHouse.org.
Joan Clappier is board secretary of the North Star Historic Conservancy.
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